Gather 'round, children, and let me tell you the story of a naked man and his bicycle. Some very bad people put this man to sleep for a long time. A very long time. When he woke up, the whole earth was frozen, and he thought he must be the only human left alive on the whole planet. But wait! What's that over there? Why it's a bubble, frozen in midair! Someone else must have survived! He'd better try to find them. But how does one navigate a world frozen solid by an apocalyptic catastrophe? On a squeaky bicycle, of course!
This is the premise of Icycle, the hauntingly gorgeous platformer from UK animator-turned-gamemaker Reece Millidge. Use the [arrow] keys to accelerate and brake with the bicycle (there's no going backwards) and [up] to jump. Pedal your way across eight treacherous landscapes, following the trail of frozen bubbles in hopes of catching up to your quarry. Be sure to avoid all the sharp things, and mind the bottomless pits from which escape the wind's mighty howl! Nab as many bubbles as you can for a better score at the end.
Each level consists of several screens, which must all be navigated flawlessly, or else it's back to the beginning of the level. You wouldn't think there would be a lot of variety in the way of frozen wasteland tableaux, but Millidge puts his immense animation talents to work, supplying themes for all eight levels. You'll find yourself carving up chilly caves, flying through frozen forests, wending your way among wintry war zones, and maneuvering through moribund metropolises.
Although many of the landscapes look ready to be leaped and bounded across, you'll end up an irritated gamer if you adopt a blitzkrieg strategy. The planet may be frozen, but it certainly is not dead! Be prepared for falling rocks, floors that crumble beneath your wheels, gigantic growing ice crystals and other unpleasant surprises. Icycle should be viewed first as a platformer, but also as a light exercise in memory ‒ something along the lines of an unfair platformer, but thankfully much milder. You might suffer a few unavoidable deaths, but with careful observation you can learn to make them, um, un-unavoidable.
Analysis: Many of you may recognize Icycle from when we featured it on Link Dump Friday. The response from the JIG community was so overwhelmingly positive that we knew we had overlooked a gem. What's more, a couple of the complaints made have been addressed: Millidge has added checkpoints to the last three levels to mitigate the difficulty, and there is now a self-destruct button in case you get stuck somewhere.
By far, the most captivating part of Icycle is the atmosphere. The premise alone was a good start; a naked guy riding a bicycle on ice? Gold. But on top of the story lies the stunning layered artwork of Millidge. It's so great, I'm happy to ignore the fact that sometimes it's hard to tell what's solid ground and what's just foreground art. Millidge clearly is one of those gifted people that not only have an impeccable eye for color, but the artistic skills to turn the palettes into a full-blown landscape.
Need more? How about all the little touches. The subtle clues of a world passed by. The howling wind. The awkward frozen pose after a crash. The forlorn calls at the beginning of each level. The fading screams as the rider falls into oblivion. The way each screen zooms in or out to accommodate the terrain. The fading iridescence of the bubbles as they freeze.
I could go on, but the point is that Millidge knows his craft down to the smallest detail, and Icycle is all the better for it. That's not to say there's no room for improvement; the controls could be better while you're riding an updraft, for example, and the physics of riding up and down hills is a bit off. Nonetheless, I have a feeling you'll be too busy enjoying the Icycle experience to notice these minor flaws.